Loving hymns, aiding refugees

‘Midnight Hymn Sing’ has two-fold purpose

Dec 26, 2017 by and

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A new album of hymns has raised around $6,000 for Mennonite Central Committee in one month.

The Midnight Hymn Sing is a collection of 10 classic hymns recorded in a blues-rock-folk style. Shannon Koehler of San Francisco, one of the lead musicians, said the project has a two-fold purpose: to introduce hymns to an audience unfamiliar with them and to financially support Syrian refugees.

Shannon Koehler, one of the lead musicians on The Midnight Hymn Sing, performs Dec. 15 at a house concert in San Francisco featuring songs from the album. Funds raised are being donated to Mennonite Central Committee programs aiding Syrian refugees. — Sheri Hostetler

Shannon Koehler, one of the lead musicians on The Midnight Hymn Sing, performs Dec. 15 at a house concert in San Francisco featuring songs from the album. Funds raised are being donated to Mennonite Central Committee programs aiding Syrian refugees. — Sheri Hostetler

The album features Koehler on vocals/harmonica/percussion and singer-songwriter Addie Liechty on vocals/acoustic guitar, along with backup musicians Erik Brubaker, Alicia Hooton and Spence Koehler.

“A lot of us grew up on these hymns that are beautiful and have amazing lyrics and fantastic melodies, and are deep with us,” Koehler said. “The younger generation of Mennonites — sometimes we get these [contemporary] worship songs shoved down our throats. It’s too bad that that’s what gets pushed on the younger generation. The hymns are part of our heritage.”

At the same time, he recognizes the traditional style of hymns may not appeal to those who didn’t grow up with them.

“How do we take these songs and make sense of them through our own filters?” he asked. “How do we represent these songs to a younger generation and have them make sense?”

The album does feature some harmony but doesn’t rely on four-part singing because Koehler wants to make the songs accessible to people who might be intimidated by a choral sound.

The music has been well received among Mennonites, with the first batch of CDs selling out in less than a month from the album’s Nov. 21 release date.

Hymn-centered church

Sheri Hostetler, lead pastor of First Mennonite Church of San Francisco, said Koehler approached her about using the project to support Syrian refugees through MCC. Hostetler then contacted West Coast MCC in Reedley, Calif., to set up the fundraiser.

She said although a few people in the congregation might prefer contemporary worship, hymns are the dominant musical tradition at FMC.

“We’re a very hymn-centered congregation,” she said. “We have a lot of young adults in our church, and people love the hymns.”

Hostetler sold many of the CDs through the church, both locally and shipping them out to far-away buyers.

“In addition to pastoring, I was [doing] CD distribution for a while there,” she laughed.

Heaters and fuel

Alan Claassen Thrush, donor relations director for West Coast MCC, worked with Hostetler to facilitate the donations, which go to multiple organizations MCC partners with to serve Syrian refugees.

“One partner helps to provide heaters and fuel for wintertime,” he said. “A lot of folks are living in shelters that are not adequately heated. . . . Another one of our partners helps provide tuition assistance for Syrian students who have been displaced.”

Koehler said the U.S. government response to Syrian refugees motivated him to help.

“We’ve been seeing how the Trump administration is responding to the outcry and the need of refugees around the world,” he said. “As we were working on this project, it seemed apparent to me that they weren’t going to be getting any help from our government.”

Because the music is being sold on different platforms — CDs, digital downloads, individual track downloads — Claassen Thrush wasn’t sure how much money was raised yet, as some of it had yet to be turned in.

Koehler estimated around $6,000 had been raised, assisted by donations at a concert the band performed Dec. 15 at a church member’s home. He said another batch of CDs would be available for purchase soon.

“Mennonites have always been socially conscious, and that’s part of who we are in the global community,” he said. “We wanted to do this record for a lot of musical reasons, too. It wasn’t just for a benefit. But we didn’t want it to just be kicking back to us. We wanted to positively affect the world with the money that it makes and renew some inspiration into the hymns that come from our culture.”

CDs of The Midnight Hymn Sing may be ordered through FMC by calling 415-857-5275 or emailing fmcsf@aol.com. It is also available on digital music stores.


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